The match up that was drawing comparisons to 1776, 1812, and 1950. To have this matchup, one with the country of my family and the country that made the biggest impact on my development as a person. Even though it was nearly 8 years to the day that I was skipping school to sneak off to watch England – Argentina at the 2002 World Cup, I remember that time vividly. That was the first World Cup game I watched in my soccer ‘enlightenment’ phase. Before that I had little concept of the world’s game, and even though I watched the ’98 final in Paris and the Euro 2000 final before that, they were simply events to be watched, not obsessed about. My time in England turned me into the person I am, soccer-wise and more. But in the following years I had reaffirmed my attachment to US Soccer, most significantly through my work as a USSF referee. And it was this match up that had consumed the media and the two publics of these countries with the ‘special relationship’.
The day started out slowly for Alisa and I here in Hartbeespoort. I had noticed that my charger for my Kodak PlaySport had been left at Elna’s along with my USB dock connector. So we put that on our list of things to get along with an Aux cable for the car as we had discovered that our radio had an Aux in port for stereo which we could connect to our iPad. So we set off to look those plus a wifi spot as we had not yet cut up a 3G card for the iPad. Alisa took the helm today for her first driving since we got back and I manned the iPad GPS.
2 hours later after visiting nearly every electronics store in the area we had been met with befuddled looks and were subsequently passed along to another store all throughout the small town. Finally we gave up and were hungry so we head to the Chameleon Village where we heard there were restaurants with big screens to watch the World Cup games. We walked around the indoor African market next door seeing nothing too unique that we had not seen previously but I stumbled upon a stereo like store who happened to know exactly what kind of auxiliary cable I wanted and only charged me R30 for the cable. Just 20 feet away we came across a telephone store and I negotiated a price for a micro-USB cable. Only in Africa could you go to every electronics store in town and find nothing, but find exactly what you need at an African bazar.
We sat down to eat at Woody’s to charge and upload videos from my Kodak, so that I would have space for the nights event. Some of the best burgers we have had yet, however like most, impossible to eat cleanly. Not sure what it is about burgers we have had on our trip, but they are certainly not designed to be eaten as whole, instead they spew their contents all over you and the plate.
On the road to the N4 which we would take all the way to Rustenburg, but on the way we suffered catastrophe on the road. I had told Alisa earlier in the day to mind the left side of the road, because many of the roads in the North West Province had jagged tar on the side of the road, and there was no room for maneuvering on that side. However, she drove too close to the side, took us off the road and put the tar right under the inside of the wheel blowing out both left side tires and sending us into a skid, that she was able to put us into a gravel parking lot of a Resturant just 30 metres ahead. Getting out to examine the damage it was difficult to tell if it was simply the tires, the rims, or the axel that had been damaged. I called Tempest, our car rental agency, who told us that they would pass along the info and get back to me. After many phone calls the result was that there were no automatic cars in the entire region available and that they would have to send a manual from OR Tambo to us. Being 1530, they would not arrive till 1830, giving us less than two hours to make the hour long journey just to the park and ride. That’s if they actually would arrive at 1830. At this point I thought I had come so far to be stopped just 80 miles from the biggest match I would have attended in my life. Despite living and breathing Arsenal and thus the English Premiership for the past 9 years I had embarrassingly never seen any of these players in person in my life.
Thinking of ditching the car and hitching a ride with the stream of honking and vuvzela blaring cars that drove past us, I asked the bartender who had come to assist us how I could go about just buying my own tire (to go with our spare). He said that could certainly be arranged and became passionate in our struggle to get back on the road. I quickly began to assemble the carjack and prepare to put on the spare. However, I was told by the Afrikaner bartender that he had ‘the blacks’ coming to help. Two black South Africans came out and he was quickly on them in Afrikaans – telling me that you had to keep on ‘these people’ or else they would be very lazy. This was the first indication that this was about to become very uncomfortable. Despite my time in South Africa I had never been present to a situation of an Afrikaner very sternly ordering a black South African. They took the jack from me and the Afrikaner then ushered us inside and told us that in Africa that “they have blacks for that kind of work”. Alisa and I both realized where we were and shut up and went inside. Alisa figured that to right the situation that she would tip the two black South Africans when the Afrikaner wasn’t looking.
Someone who I assumed was the bartender’s son took one of our wheels and set off to get us a replacement. We watched the end of the Springbok – France game that was on the TV, while I tried to down a Castle Lager beer. Again, being where I was, that was the expected drink, and due to the lengths they were going to get us back on the road, I did in Rome….
As I came out to try to pitch in with the last repairs, one of the black South Africans told me I must leave him my US jersey when I leave. This request has always bugged me since my time in Durban. Most South Africans are used to dealing with rich white tourists, or rich white South Africans. They are under the impression that we are made of disposable income and can leave our belongings to them when we leave. While this practice is done by many friendly tourists with clothes, the expectation that I am supposed to do it has bugged me since I am not one with any disposable income and everything I have brought must last me the trip and further. The expectation that I would leave my customized Arsenal kit for someone when I was at UKZN in Durban bugged me the entire time I was there as I had tried to show that I was very much a poor college student like them. Not the same comparatively, but in each of our respective environments. So this request dented my appreciation and I instead offered the only money I had left in my wallet, a one dollar bill (all of our Rand had been spent in the process of procuring the new tire). As we drove off, I saw the man show the one dollar bill to the white young man who had got us the tire who laughed, smiled and took it to show someone else. Fat chance the man I gave it to as thanks would ever get it back I thought…
Finally we’re on the N4 but it is not too long till we hit the game night traffic. The N4 is just a two lane road, though in true South African style, the emergency lane is used as a second lane as we get to 40 kms outside of Rustenburg. It remains gridlock up to the toll, but then opens up till just past the town center and becomes a long queue leading from the highway to the off ramp and all the way to the park and ride. Having gotten on the N4 at 1630 we finally arrive at the park and ride at 1915. We quickly park, change into our warmer weather attire, grab our cameras and vuvzelas and head to the transport. We’re off to the stadium but get stuck in traffic just outside the stadium. Quiet confusing why a restricted area would have so much traffic, and why there wouldn’t be a simple drop off point for the minibus…a black South African family (with very proper accents) start to commentate on the set up and one of the girls explains it away as TIA (This is Africa). Alisa and I both look at each other as this was the term that got us and the rest of the Californians through our most difficult times in Africa to keep our nerves and frustrations in check. Though we had never heard an African use the term in such a way… though they were very proper…
Finally we’re on the ground and make our way through the security checkpoint, and then through the ticketing. No check of our IDs or tickets for names, and as we had left the park and ride there were many people trying to sell tickets. I guess FIFA doesn’t enforce the ‘you can not sell these tickets’ rule. That might come in handy down the road….
The grounds of the stadium are packed and we quickly make our way around the ground and find our entrance. Straight up the steps and into the stadium. We are immediately in a cauldron of English support and as I look around the stadium, the claims of a local radio station that the Americans would be in the majority look laughable now. Fortunately there is a group of Americans in our immediate vicinity, and it looks as if FIFA tried to make a nice pocket of Americans deep inside the English horde. Not sure if that was FIFA trying to keep us safe in numbers, or a centralized target…
The game sees an inept England not take their limited chances and hand us an equalizer that our seats give us a perfect view of the goal line as it trickles over the line. I’ve never been one to greatly celebrate goals that are of the opposing teams’ making, but Alisa and I and the Americans nearby celebrated the goal like it was a 30 yard lightening bolt. From then on the stadium never really comes to life again, as the faint chants of ‘U-S-A” never have enough voices to carry it, and the obligatory ‘God Save the Queen’ at the beginning of the second half does little to pick up the England XI. We only have one beer bottle thrown at us and with few flash points after the second goal, the collective nerves of each countries supporters mean the game is spent biting nails and holding breaths.
The referee signals the end of the game very undramatically (both the AR on our side and the center had been very fussy all night). And subdued cheers go up from the Americans sections of the stadium, while boos ring out from out section of the ground from the England supporters above us.
We linger in the stadium to savor the moment and let the crowd file out. A great result against a much superior team. Two years ago we barely got a touch of the ball when we played them at Wembly, but in this game we bossed the middle field at times and had nice moment going forward, but lacked any difference makers on the bench to change the game (Bradley refuses to take the risk and send on a player like my boy Benny Feilhaber, the best passer in the US team). Thinking we’ll wait till the majority of fans have cleared the ground we leave to see the ground outside the stadium still packed so we wander and check to see if any match programs remain (all sold out, much like a lot of things in the country, it’s like the South Africa started to buy into this belief that not many people were coming as there are limited amounts of many World Cup memorabilia and South Africa apparel). As we leave there are still many people just leaving the checkpoints and making their way to where we believe transport will be waiting for us. We follow the signs for our R104 road car park. And we continue until we hit the intersection where we were dropped off and see half a dozen police offices standing next to their vehicle as a massive jam of people and busses bring the streets to gridlock (plus an 18 wheeler with mineral transport boxes, which made no sense to have access to a restricted zone during a match day). So we continue to walk, and follow the crowd. The stadium had not kept much warm air in the entire match, so we are already quiet cold, but continue to walk to find a minibus. After more than 3kms of walking we find ourselves at the head of a massive herd of people walking along looking for transport as. Minibuses continue to stream by, plus personal vehicles (again why are they in the restricted zone at this time at night?) but none stop for us. Finally though a Minibus with R104 pulls over and a massive rush to get on ensues. Alisa decides to make the dash as well and I follow, and we grab the last two seats and are finally off to the car. Back at the car park, we are surprisingly some of the first back, as nearly all the 4000 cars are sitting there. We would read in the paper the next day that getting out of the stadium was very much a mess for everyone.
We make our way to the Hodge Podge Lodge and arrive with temperatures now below freezing, but find the backpackers bustling with activity and after a while finally get a room sorted. Just as Alisa and I are about to settle in, a car load of English fans arrive and the night becomes lively. The jokes ensue, mostly among themselves about their team, and ours. I know well enough to keep quiet, agree, and roll with most of the playful insults. Alisa, doesn’t have my 2 years of in England and proceeds to engage them and is asked to tell a joke, which she starts on a ‘joke’ about this massive Empire taken down by these small colonies. I try to cover her mouth before she talks her way into trouble, but thankfully the guys are in a moderately upbeat mood and ignore the last subject Americans should bring up, and proceed to continue their playful trash talk, though now among themselves, filling the room with laughter. I have never laughed so hard for such a long time in my life. I had forgotten how much I missed living the football culture in the UK, and proceed to fall asleep with tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks, fortunately not freezing in the cold night above Rustenburg. A day that contained major highs of both anger, frustration, disappointment, joy, surprise, and lots of laughter ends. And we’re only through the first group game of the World Cup!